Can Turtles Live In Cold Water? (Do Turtles Get Cold?)

Fish can be incredible creatures, and we often forget there’s an entirely separate world under the sea; an entire ecosystem of swimming, gliding creatures that don’t live on the same air we do. The rush to get to Mars is kind of baffling when we’ve got so much left to explore here. 

Some fish, like koi and goldfish, are known for their ability to live in extremely cold temperatures. It makes one wonder, if there are creatures that can handle temperatures as low as near freezing, what kind of creatures have been capable of withstanding the deep cold of the ocean we’ve yet to be able to explore?

Some turtles, as well, can survive in cold and near-freezing temperatures. In this blog post, we’ll go over the best practices of caring for a turtle in cold or freezing water and just how they manage to live in such frigid climates. 

Do Turtles Get Cold?

Turtles are incredibly different from us when it comes to maintaining body heat. We are endotherms. Essentially, this means our bodies need fuel to constantly generate body heat and regulate it properly. 

When it’s cold, we bundle ourselves up in layers of clothing to trap our body heat and stay warm. If our body temperature changes drastically, it means we’re sick. Some rogue virus has managed to get in and make our system go haywire. 

When a turtle’s body temperature changes, as an ectotherm, it’s merely a sign their environment has changed. But this doesn’t mean ectotherms like turtles can survive in a deep freeze. This is why, in winter, freshwater turtles will go into hibernation. 

The cold water, if it freezes, is dangerous. For one thing, the turtle can’t break the surface if it swims up. And a turtle cannot survive with ice crystals inside their bodies. Secondly, frozen water has a tendency to remove the oxygen from the water, turning it either hypoxic or anoxic. 

Snapping turtles have the ability to change their metabolism from one that consumes oxygen to one that doesn’t. It’s an amazing ability, but doing it for long stretches is unhealthy for the turtle. Snapping turtles and painted turtles have lived at cold water temperatures for as long as 100 days in a lab. 

When a turtle hibernates, it survives on what it has stored and the water that runs over it. The surface of a turtle has some areas that are particularly well vascularized – namely, their butt. The turtle essentially hibernates by butt-breathing.

When it Spring arrives, the turtles come out of hibernation, but their body is nothing but one massive muscle cramp. This is the most dangerous time for a turtle, when it has difficulty moving quickly, making it extremely vulnerable to predators. 

How Cold is Too Cold for a Turtle?

As a turtle’s body temperature is largely regulated by their surroundings, it can be very significant to their overall health and energy. Turtles start to get sluggish at around 40 to 50 degrees fahrenheit. 

Aquatic turtles will go in mud or the bottom of banks when the water gets too cold. If your turtle gets too cold, it could cause a respiratory infection that could lead to death. 

According to recent research, two-thirds of turtle species are at risk of extinction currently. Through tracking, they’ve found that the most popular hibernation areas are wetlands where the temperature is just above freezing. 

Can Turtles Die from Being Too Cold?

Adult turtles cannot survive ice crystals in their bodies. But they only die when they’re on the ground in freezing climates. Underwater, however, they can safely hibernate. 

Will My Turtle Die if the Water is Too Cold?

Even though turtles survive the cold through hibernation and can handle quite a bit, there is a limit. If their body temperature reaches freezing, they won’t survive. There are, however, some exceptions. Box turtles, for instance, can live in extremely cold weather. 

How Long Can Turtles Live in Cold Water?

100 days is the official limit, according to scientists who ran tests on turtles in freezing water in Ontario, Canada. Jaqueline Litzgus, a professor at the department of biology of Laurentians University, has been tracking turtles in freezing temperatures to discover what they do while hibernating. 

Little is known about what that time is like for them, and how their bodies react and change. 

Painted turtles, Litzgus said, are the kinds of resisting anoxia in water. But there is a limit, and as far as humans know it’s 100 days. Any longer and your turtle can risk cold shock and eventual death. 

What Temperature Should The Water Be In A Turtle Tank?

It’s best to keep your turtle’s tank at temperatures between 71 degrees and 82 degrees fahrenheit. If the water falls below 50, your turtle will prepare to hibernate. The best way to know the temperature of your turtle’s water is to have a water thermometer installed in your tank. 

Digital thermometers are the easiest to read. With a thermometer, you’ll always know the water is ideal for a turtle or any aquatic pet you keep. Though with other pets, the temperatures may have to be set differently. 

Do Turtles Need A Water Heater?

It’s critical that you learn how to make the water suitable for your special friend. Raising your turtles in an outdoor habitat is a little more difficult, as there’s little you can do to control the weather outside. Setting up an indoor habitat is better, or one can purchase a pond heater. 

There are some questions about a pond heater’s reliability outside, however. Indoors, it’s easy to control a tank heater. An automatic heater is ideal, as there’s little work to be done in regulating one. 

Changing the water when it gets cold is also a necessary part of turtle maintenance. One can also purchase a heat lamp to face the turtle’s tank. Or you could leave the tank in direct sunlight, but that presents two problems. 

The first is flies. Any turtle is going to attract insects and if you keep a tank near an open window, you’re sure to get some. 

The second issue is the nighttime. When the sun goes down, you lose your ability to gain heat from it. At this point a water heater or a heat lamp would be necessary, particularly in the colder nights. 

Most turtle species can handle extremely cold temperatures. If it gets too cold, they’ll hibernate in the water to survive. A turtle’s abilities, developed over centuries of evolution, are truly astonishing features that no other creature has in quite the same way. 

But those abilities have limits, and when they’re out of their natural environments, they may not be used to some unnatural temperatures. You don’t want to trigger hibernation in a turtle when it’s not necessary. You also don’t want them developing ice crystals in their bodies, which are sure to kill them over time. 

But nature’s shelled warriors have been around for eons for a reason. They’re strong, but they still need your support when under your care. Keep your turtle warm and you’re sure to give it a much happier, healthier existence in your home. 


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